Leah Chandler is tracking tourism in Branson, which is on course for a 5 percent increase to push visitors to a record 8.4 million.
2016 Projection Branson tourism will increase by 1.5 percent to set a new record.
SBJ: The midyear projection was 7.5 million visitors to Branson. Are you in that neighborhood?
Leah Chandler: We definitely are. I want to preface this by saying that visitation numbers are no longer the main measurement of success for Branson tourism. That methodology currently used to track visitors is pretty old. That number – [whether] it is 6 million, 7 million or 8 million – comes into question a lot. We do track the trends, and we trust that the trends are pretty spot on, but more than visitation, we use tax receipts to measure the success of Branson tourism.
We do still track visitation numbers for purposes of growth and seeing what the trend line does. So, we are expecting estimates – which are conservative because we don’t yet have numbers for November and December – to be up somewhere around 5 percent in 2015. That would set an all-time visitation record (at) about 8.4 million.
SBJ: Do you expect tourism tax receipts to increase about 5 percent, as well?
Chandler: If we stay on pace, we will hit a third year in a row of record tax receipts in the Tourism Community Enhancement District – that’s the district that was established about 10 years ago. Right now, the city of Branson tax receipts through October are up 3.97 percent; Taney County is up 5.5 percent; the TCED is up 2.63 percent; the city of Branson tourism tax is up 3.2 percent; and Stone County is up 11 percent.
SBJ: What’s driving the growth?
Chandler: Part of it is gas prices were driven down throughout the year. More importantly – and something we have an influence on – is the marketing strategy. Over the last two to three years, we’ve changed our marketing strategy to not only continue talking to our loyal Branson visitors who we know and love, but to also try to attract new audiences – mixing up the marketing message to promote all of the products Branson has to offer. We have pulled in some of our other products like lakes and outdoor recreation, as well as family attractions.
SBJ: How do you draw people to Branson?
Chandler: TV is where the bulk of our [$5.5 million] budget goes. We spend about 70 percent of our media budget on television marketing. We are marketing to not only our regional drive market, but also using national cable to reach the market beyond 650 miles because Branson really does have strong brand recognition around the country.
We use about 20 to 25 percent of our budget on digital. Our print budget is about 6.5 percent. And then we use radio, as well. Mostly just in our drive market – Springfield and Joplin.
SBJ: There have been some new attractions in Branson, as well as things still in development: Top of the Rock and the natural history museum, Fritz’s Adventure and Ballparks of America. Do you expect tourism to be up in 2016?
Chandler: We think it’s going to be more moderate as tourism around the country cools a little bit. There was a lot of pent-up demand following the recession in 2009, 2010, and we believe we will start to level off a bit in 2016. But, working with some of our strategic partners, we believe we will be up about 1.5 percent in 2016.
SBJ: How will convention business be affected with no major airlines flying through Branson Airport?
Chandler: We’ve built a pretty strong convention business, coming from associations in the Midwest, Arkansas and within Missouri. I don’t think not having (a major carrier) is going to make that go lower, but we know when we get more service, that will make it go higher.
I think we’re definitely able to sustain what we have, and we are looking at innovative ways to bring new meetings and conventions to Branson. One of those is by hiring a consultant out of Chicago, who is going to help put boots on the ground in that market to bring some of the associations based in Chicago to Branson.
SBJ interviews the associate dean, vice chair and professor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy at Missouri State University.